You're Killing Me!
by Joe Hendry
Mess Media, September 22, 2010
Appreciation is something I rarely experience on the road. I show up
every day ready to ride hard in every imaginable weather condition and
under any circumstance. In one sense it is understandable. There is
little time for appreciation because as soon as I complete one job
there may be a more important one already waiting.
Deliver or die. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad weather, traffic,
mechanical problems or any other extraordinary circumstance. The client
does not care. They want their package right away; otherwise they
would probably call UPS or FedEx.
Although customers seldom admit it, they often rely on the bike
messenger to be their hero. They need someone to keep them from going
to jail or someone to save them from losing millions of dollars or
someone to make up for all the inefficiencies, office politics
and procrastinations that led them dangerously close to missing a
Now it’s all on me, the bike messenger. If I succeed it is expected and
I am on to the next tag immediately. If something goes wrong, I’m
expected to fix it. I’m the fall guy. If the client had the wrong
address, or the wrong contact name, it doesn’t matter. I will be
expected to spend some time trying to fix the problem and save the
client. Some companies will charge extra for the time, others will not.
Most will charge some of the time but ultimately I will not know if I
will be paid for my extra time and effort until long after the tag is
I face these types of situations day after day, sometimes many times in
the same day. In winter and especially in bad weather they become more
frequent. Jack Kugelmass, an anthropologist, in Natural History
magazine, accurately wrote that "bad weather sets the stage for the
heroic aspects of messengering.” Snow storms, freezing rain,
blistering cold and wind, any bad weather empties people from the
streets of Toronto. Everyone hides indoors or they use the
underground tunnels that join the office towers in the downtown core.
In bad weather, I rarely see people outside. I may catch a glimpse of
them through windows or in cars but they don’t seem real. It is like
watching them on TV. Everyone inside avoids the reality of bad weather
outside and for the few people that do venture outside special
precautions are sometimes necessary.
Bad weather means good business for bike messengers. Office workers
never deliver packages themselves in a storm. Snow slows down the
car drivers as they are paralyzed by gridlocked traffic or their cars
won’t start and when they do they often slide off the roads or into
each other. Bad weather means the car dispatchers make excuses to
customers for late packages but not the bikers. We are forced to handle
calls that the cars cannot. If our packages are late, it is not
due to the weather it is due to the overwhelming volume of work.
I love working in bad weather, especially snow storms. I have had a
whole week of poor earnings saved by one storm. One week I had the flu
so bad I stopped and slept for an hour in the lobby of 150 Bloor Street
West. Although I don’t like to take pills, I popped Tylenol every four
hours attempting to keep my temperature down and my sinuses open.
By the time I dragged myself home at the end of the day I didn’t care
about the money I was losing. I didn’t care about the pride I had in my
job. All I wanted was relief and the only relief was sleep.
In a couple of days I regained my strength, determined to earn back all
the money my sickness had cost me. The forecast was calling for snow so
I left my house early at about 7:30 in the morning and turned on my
radio. I was living on Alton Road just east of Leslie Street at Queen
Street East. As I turned right on to Queen Street I rode through a
trace of broken glass. I reached down with my gloved right hand and
gently held it against the front tire to brush away any glass that may
have embedded itself in my tire. I lowered my head to monitor my hand
against the moving wheel. Just as I raised it back up - BAM! I was
airborne over the hood of a red Honda Accord and landed on its front
The Honda had turned on to Queen from the side street ahead. The driver
was driving on the wrong side of the road intending to merge into
traffic on the right side of the road. He didn’t see me. Fortunately we
were both moving at slow enough speeds that his front windshield only
cracked and did not break. I was in shock. Not only was I alive but
other than a few bruises and a sore head, I seemed to be fine. My bike
took most of the impact. My front wheel looked like a metal
pretzel and my front fork was squished against the frame of my blue
Gardin road bike.
As I climbed down from the car fuming, the driver of the Honda got out
of his car and he was already apologizing. It confused me. Drivers
never apologize. I didn't know what to do or say. His behaviour was so
foreign that I was completely disarmed and all my anger left my body. I
was so grateful for the apology I told the driver not to worry about it
and I trustingly wrote down his contact information. I called my
dispatcher, George, over the radio to let him know what happened and I
lugged my bike the short distance home.
By the time I reached home, I had a message on my phone from my boss,
Frank, the owner of the courier company.
“I’m glad you’re OK but I need to you to come in today and walk
for me... We are going to be very busy. Call me.”
I may have still been in shock from the accident but the message didn’t
surprise me. Frank started his company from scratch. He put
a lot of his time into it. His company meant everything to him. His
workers did not.
Frank had a Jekyll and Hyde personality that was driven by the stress
of the business. During the work day he was extremely high strung and
he panicked quite easily. Many times when I was in the office waiting
for work, I witnessed him impatiently grab the headset from the
dispatcher’s head to scream into the radio. At the end of the
working day his personality completely changed. He was calm, relaxed
I didn’t call Frank back. I wasn’t about to spend the entire day
working on foot when I had my backup bike, the orange Peugeot road bike
ready and waiting. I pulled it out of my storage closet, checked
it over and headed back out to the road.
Frank was right it was very busy. The snow started around ten o’clock
and as the roads and sidewalks became snow covered, the calls came
faster and more frequent. After an hour of snow we were one biker down.
“Two-zero” Pete dropped the key to his u-lock down the gap in between
an elevator and its door. His bike was locked outside and his spare key
was at home in Etobicoke, more than an hour’s bike ride away. Pete was
forced to walk the rest of the day.
Later that morning “Four-six” Dave fell outside the TD Centre and hurt
his back. He bravely worked the rest of the day determined to survive
the excruciating back pain.
By this time it was so busy that Frank sent our dispatcher, George out
on the road in a car to help the drivers cover the work. It meant that
Frank would take over dispatching the bikes. He ran a successful
courier business. He was a former driver and he knew the city well but
Frank wasn’t a very good dispatcher. Often I dreaded hearing him call
“Let’s see. Let’s... go... to.... number…..” He would pause there
as he looked over the dispatch board and I would say to myself “please
don’t say one-twelve, any number but one-twelve.”
More often than not, it seemed like he would continue with “One-twelve
Joe, where are you?”
But my answer would be irrelevant as Frank would dispatch me the call
he had had in his hand. It didn’t matter where I was or where I was
going, he reasoned, because I could always pass it off later. Although
I would never get a chance to pass it off.
Busy days can be chaotic and stressful. Calls come from everywhere.
Everything is urgent and everything changes quickly. On days like that
I try to find a rhythm. Whether it is riding through traffic or
planning my route, anything that might smooth the chaos and offer some
predictability. A few moments of predictability in a hectic day are
like an office worker’s coffee break. Only for a messenger, they are
not a break from work but merely a break from chaos.
It is much more difficult to find my rhythm when Frank dispatches
because he is so unpredictable. When he dispatches I avoid the radio
and I try to go into the office as often as possible so that I might
see what calls he has and suggest which ones would go with the packages
I already have in my bag. I often write down my next few stops so he
can see where I am headed. It worked much better for me.
I found my moments of rhythm and I was flying, picking and dropping,
dropping and picking. It was so busy that I was never able to empty my
bag. Shortly after lunch I came down from Eglinton with a full bag of
deliveries for the core. I was heading south on University Avenue
approaching Gerrard Street with my first drop of the run, a super hot
for 20 Queen Street West. I was standing on my pedals when my right
crank arm snapped. My chest slammed down on the crossbar, my chin hit
the handlebars and I scraped my right calf on the broken crank arm. My
bike fishtailed on the street and I dug my shoes in to the ground
scraping into a Fred Flintstone stop.
“Not again” I thought to myself. How much can my body take in one
day or one week? I put the broken crank with the pedal still attached
into my bag and I pedaled with one leg down to 20 Queen Street.
“Five-Four” Greg was sitting outside and he started laughing when he
saw me approach.
I stopped and called in over the radio to tell Frank what happened. In
anticipation of Frank’s reaction Greg moved his arms to mimic an
Frank’s voice came back over the radio.
“One twelve Joe, my friend. …first you get sick, then you get hit
by a car and now your bike is broken”
His voice was calm. Perhaps he was concerned for me. For a second I
imagined he was going to thank me for my determination, my effort and
my hard work this week. Finally I would get some appreciation!
Instead he screamed “YOU’RE KILLING ME! You need to take better care of
yourself and your bike. I need you to keep going and fix your bike
Both Greg and I burst in to laughter. I rode the next few hours
in the snow storm with one leg on one pedal and crank.